Why are cinemas disappearing from our high streets?

Picture houses used to be at the heart of communities; now they're almost invisible

 

How encouraging that film exhibition in the UK is no longer facing the threat of extinction that loomed in the 1980s. Back then, the video revolution ate into audience numbers with its big, chomping top-loader mouth, and many towns woke to discover they were in possession of a brand new bingo hall, but were also one cinema the poorer.

So audiences are going to cinemas now. But where are the cinemas going? The dominance of the multiplexes has had the strange effect of pushing the cinema into the closet — or, more accurately, into the shopping centre. I’m not here to take issue with the mall multiplex, a phenomenon that began in the US, or with its occasional technical shortcomings, poor staffing issues and so on. But what its popularity has done is to remove cinema from the physical architecture of our towns and cities. Oh, there are exceptions — the Curzon, Everyman and Picturehouse chains, as well as thriving cinemas such as Brighton’s Duke of York (now owned by Picturehouse) or the Glasgow Film Theatre — but for the most part it remains an exotic experience to drive or walk through a town outside London and actually pass a cinema. A functioning cinema, that is. With a marquee [a text display of the films showing above the entrance of the cinema].

A director described to me recently the disheartening feeling each time he turned up to introduce films or conduct Q&A sessions at a US cinema, only to find that each one was in a mall, or nestled within some concrete structure not visible from the street. We tuck most of our cinemas away now as though we are ashamed of them. Many of the others are derelict and/or barricaded (like the much-fought-for EMD cinema in Walthamstow, which I have written about here before), or else remodelled into other businesses (such as the gym on London’s St Martin’s Lane, WC2, which was once the city’s plushest arthouse venue, the subterranean Lumiere Cinema, where I used to go to see first runs of Peter Greenaway films — and, more importantly, to see disgusted patrons walk out of those same Peter Greenaway films).

Time presses on. And this is no lament for that fact. But couldn’t we make more of a fuss of the cinemas that we do have left? I’ll give you an example: my local Odeon, in South Woodford, east London. Admittedly I have a sentimental attachment to this particular cinema, since it was the site of many formative experiences for me from childhood (when it was The Majestic, and then the ABC) and throughout my adolescence. Even setting that aside, it’s hard for a cinema lover not to be appalled by the cinema’s recent decision to throw in the towel.

Oh, it’s still open. But the posters, those titillating mementoes, are all out of sight, and the one display visible from the street shows some tatty standees behind a dirty window. Worst of all, the cinema has given up on its own marquee. Do films come and go so quickly now that there’s simply no point advertising their existence? I’m inclined to think it’s more about the move of cinemas toward anonymity, facelessness, anything but the demonstrative beauty of the art deco picture palaces.

I used to love the marquee display — those big, clunky letters strung up on the illuminated frontage so that the titles of the films could be seen from neighbouring postcodes. The spookiest sensation of all was when you emerged from the cinema after the last show on a Thursday night, only to find that all trace of the film which had just ended had been removed by the cinema employees, who had hung in its place on the marquee the title of the new week’s attractions. You had only your fragile memory of what you had just seen to prove you had even been there at all.

There’s no marquee now, just a message in capital letters that reads: check our website or call for listings. They could have saved even more letters, even more manpower, had they opted for a more candid declaration, something along the lines of Odeon: we can't be arsed.

A cinema in the Forties in Derbyshire. Credit: Getty Images

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage